Reading To Become A Better Writer
Aspiring writers are told they must do more reading in order to improve their writing. But reading the classics might not be the answer. Maybe you don’t need to read all of Shakespeare after all?
In order to become a better writer you have to read. A lot. It’s pretty standard advice. Everyone agrees: reading improves the quality of your writing, so read the work of good writers.
Stephen King put it pretty bluntly.
“…if you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”
This advice is universal for a reason – it works. Reading widens your vocabulary. It introduces you to different kinds of ideas and different ways of telling stories. Reading opens you up to a world of human experience beyond your own. And as you read you develop the skills and stamina you’ll need to critically assess and edit your own writing.
But there’s one way in which this advice can go wrong, and it often begins with Shakespeare.
The Danger Of Asking The Internet
Imagine being that aspiring writer. You want to improve. You’re ready to read. But read what? So you go online and ask for recommendations. In they come: Joyce, Tolstoy, Melville, Proust, etc. And of course Shakespeare. The heavy hitters of classic literature all get dumped on you.
Follow this advice and things could quickly go wrong. Especially if you are not already a prolific reader. Soon you’ll be 200 pages into Infinite Jest, wondering if you should just give up on writing and take up something less arduous, maybe mountain climbing, or crocodile farming.
Book recommendations often say more about the people making the recommendations than the needs of those asking for something to read. People want to look clever and sophisticated so they recommend the heaviest and most difficult books they’ve read.
For all you know, the person recommending Dostoyevsky or Shakespeare has never read a line of their work. Or perhaps they did once, in college, or high school. But it’s unlikely they jumped from reading “Thou knowest the mask of night is on my face…” to answer a few questions on Reddit or Twitter.
Reading Like A Reader
I’m not saying no-one reads these heavy classics. They do. At least, sometimes. But talk to readers, the kind of readers who’d rather point their eyes at a book than Netflix, and you’ll find they read more widely, more contemporaneously, and often more lowbrow than the stuff you find in “classics you need to read” lists.
In a bookstore, the shelves carrying the classics and “literature” comprise only a small part of the layout. Think about the other shelves. The bestsellers, the crime, the romance, the children’s books, and all the non-fiction, from cookbooks to world politics.
All those other shelves offer the vast array of ideas you can explore and audiences you can connect with as a writer.
All those books have readers. They could, one day, be readers of your work as well. If you learn to write for them.
Reading Like An Artist
Artistry is all about process. Regardless of whether you’re a photographer, musician, or writer, how you consume is just as important as what you consume. Your goal as an artist is to make work that will resonate with an audience.
As a writer you don’t read in order to fulfil some need for validation or as a qualification. You read in order to figure out how to express your ideas and share your stories in ways that your readers will connect with.
“It’s an artist’s duty to reflect the times in which we live.”
– Nina Simone
You’ll hear people say things like “Shakespeare knew how to shape a story.” Sure. Structure matters. Shakespeare did it well. But so do many contemporary writers. And so do film and TV makers. Good storytelling is all around you.
Which one did more of your potential readers enjoy this year – Hamlet or The Queen’s Gambit?
The same goes for Shakespeare’s famous skill with language. You might never write anything as poetic as even the most disposable lines Shakespeare wrote. But if you try to write like him you’ll come across as fake and insincere, a mere copy of a famous style.
Finding a style you can explore and imitate, at least to begin with, is part of how you discover your style. It’s similar to what musicians do. They start playing covers and standards. That’s the way to get on stage. Then the original songs and the unique style develop as their musical vocabulary grows.
It’s the same with writing. You’ll struggle to grow if you don’t read writers who speak a similar language to yours, who live in a similar moment, who tell similar stories.
Reading Like A Writer
So, how do you read like a writer? Start with what you want to write. And, spoiler alert, unless you’re trying to write historial plays in an Elizabethan style, then Shakespeare didn’t write like you.
If you want to write personal essays, then read personal essays. Read travel memoirs if you want to write about travel. Start by making a short list of four or five writers who are currently writing in the style you want to emulate.
Since it’s 2020 and not 1620, add some diversity to your list. Don’t pick writers who all come from the same background, write for the same publications, or appear on the same bestseller lists.
You can take this further by paying attention to writers they mention, either in their work or maybe in interviews. Or take a look at the writers they are compared to, either in book blurbs or reviews.
Pretty soon you’ll have a reading list long enough to keep you going for some time. And all of it relevant to the style of writing you are hoping to make your own.
So, Do The Classics Not Matter
I want to acknowledge a bit of privilege here. I read a lot of classsics in high school. Not because I went to a great school; I didn’t. It was a terrible institution filled with demoralised teachers who were expected to train future factory workers.
But, thanks to some visionaries on the state school board, we were assigned a little bit of literature in English classes. And in my youthful naïveté I took that as a sign that I should trawl through the mostly untouched literature and poetry sections of the school library.
Did those books shape me? Yes. Did they inspire me to become a writer? No.
The distance between my world and those of Hardy, or James, or Solzhenitsyn was too great. I couldn’t quote them in regular conversation, to make friends laugh, or break the ice with girls I wanted to talk to.
Song lyrics, lines from movies, or more recent books and magazine articles were different. I still remember the moment I read this line in The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, by Douglas Adams.
“The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t.”
The wit in that sentence, the literary device that makes it funny, was a tool I could use. As a writer, that’s what you want from your reading – tools you can use.
By all means read the classics if you’re inclined to do so. But read contemporary work too. Read writers who write the way you want to write. Read the writers your readers enjoy. Remember to read like an artist and read like a writer – using your reading as a way to become a better writer yourself.